The Norden Blog
An intimate look into life on the Tibetan Plateau around the Norden Camp
Tibetan society was and still is largely a nomadic one, with migration central to the culture. People lived in tents, and every few months, a whole group of households would pick up and move to another pasture. Even as cities developed and a trend for a mixed economy, having both fields and herds, began to spread as early as the 8th century, this idea of mobility remained rooted in Tibetan lifestyle. Tables fold, paintings roll up, cupboards can be dismantled into several parts, and goods are stored in easily movable trunks or boxes. Later, when chairs appeared as a result of Chinese influence, Tibetans managed to make a foldable version. Today, tents are still central to Tibetan lifestyle. Nomads in many parts still live in the large black tents made of yak hair. They cut the long strands of hair that hang down on the side of the yak, spin it into thread and weave it into long strips on a backstrap loom. They then sew together these pieces to make the tent. The whole process rarely happens at once; every year, they replace part of the strips, taking down the old ones, and replacing them with new ones, taking about twelve years to recycle the tent. Nomad tents were functional, but not very practical. Smoke helped fill the gaps in the cloth, though it was later discovered that plastic sheeting was more efficient to keep out the rain. Large families had large tents, with separate areas for men and women, sometimes sheltering as many as twenty family members. The sides of the tents were lined with sacks or trunks filled with supplies and provisions, as well as an altar with statues and photos of lamas. In the middle is the hearth, built of mud and a makeshift kang warmed by a pile of sheep droppings in a wooden frame and covered with layers of felt and sheepskin. Yak hair tents are heavy and moving camp involved labor by many. Nowadays, many prefer to use army tents, which are lighter and more practical as well as more efficient in keeping one dry. The downside is that they are flimsy, and people still view the yak hair tents with nostalgia. For those who live in urban areas, there is the picnic tent. The trend started in Lhasa in the early 20th century, when people pitched light canvas tents by the river side or in parks, cooking, eating and playing games for days on end. These tents were decorated in bright colors or in blue and black patterns. Today, they are still the trend, and are used for summer picnics in all parts of the Tibetan plateau. Norden took the Tibetan nomad tent to another level by giving it a metal frame, windows and wooden floors, introducing visitors to the best of both worlds.
A few years ago, a group of Tibetan businessmen pooled their resources to open a training school for Tibetan cooks for local youths in an effort to preserve traditional Tibetan cooking and provide a wider pool of employment. They opened a restaurant adjoining the training area, where guests can sample unique elements of Tibetan cooking, using local ingredients and age old recipes. The menu includes joma (prenouced droma in Lhasa dialect) in various forms, a wide variety of local mushrooms and of course the meat from yaks, sheep and pigs. Guests are also presented with a tray of herbal teas in jars indicating the benefit of each, all from the surrounding grassland. Some are derived from flowers, others different kinds of grass, twigs or bark. We watched the students practice their deftness with woks, using stones. In an adjacent store, one could buy the herbal teas.
On May 1st, Gonthang Rinpoche came to spend two days at Norden, being the first important visitor of the season. Rinpoche, who is 14, and undergoing a strict monastic curriculum at nearby Labrang Monastery, was taking a rare break from his studies. The visit which was not planned and happened on the opening day, was seen as a very auspicious event.
We call it “Bar” but it is so much more. It is a Breakfast room, a collecting the autumn morning sun rays room, a space for gathering around the stove on a chilly night, to sun oneself on the morning or afternoon decks, or to hide from the sun in reverse order on a summer day. One can enjoy wines, Norden cocktails and mocktails, teas brewed from local plants, smoothies, cappuccinos and expressos, or have a formal English tea with milk tea and cake. From the outside, the space melts into the environment. Lightly built, it sands up from the ground and can be removed, restituting the grassland to its former condition. In winter, animals, back from the highlands, graze all around. From the inside, one can enjoy the outside, sheltered from rain, snow or the chilly wind and watch birds flutter about, a yak tail flicking and disappearing behind the bushes. By Kim Yeshi, Photos by Dechen Yeshi
The Lungta Cooperative, a groundbreaking enterprise in finding alternative ways for nomads to use their skills, brought together a group of Yidam’s relatives and their families from Tsayig and their 140 yaks. They spent 2016 building the project from their own resources, and began introducing the concept to the guests at Norden camp; hosting city based youths or visitors to the camp and introducing them to the life of nomads. It was autumn when I visited the camp. The color had muted from a vivid green to earthy yellow. Plans for the cheese and other diary yields from the coop’s yaks using innovative methods were coming together, and training planned for 2017. These will be used and tested by Norden and eventually distributed through networks of organic products.
When people think of a trip to the Tibetan Plateau, they most often visualize summer, an obvious choice with its emerald pastures and endless flowers. Fall has a different beauty, subtler, but just as gratifying. The Norden’s bush and low tree dominated landscape turn into a riot of color. Early morning is a glittering blanket of frost that slowly yields to the sun. Gradually, yellows, reds and various shades of pink appear, changing with the light as the day goes by. Fall at Norden is a beautiful sight; cold nights, spent cozily in the wood cabins and bright sunny days that become almost hot, perfect for taking the sun on the deck. From the refuge of the Norden Bar, which affords views on nature from all sides, one can watch the drama of a snowstorm, the melting of snow, the wandering yaks and the changing colors of the landscape. Then winter comes and we have to pack up and close, the wind becomes bitter, and the cold relentless. Animals take over what is their winter pasture and we all look forward to the Spring when we open once more.
Norden opened on April 28th, to the subtle hues of the pasture Spring and new facilities to make one’s stays even more memorable. The Norlha Lounge, which last year was a log cabin, now has an additional space to accommodate breakfast or lunch, and a roof top deck that offers a view over the whole camp and adjoining grassland. Next to the river is the new hot tub cabana, with a view on the nomad camp beyond and the hills spotted with black, yaks on their daily grazing rounds. In Spring, the weather can be warm when the sun is out, with cool evenings, spent by the bonfire, where the Norden staff, all nomads will sing to their mandolins.
Every few years, peasants and nomads weave baskets from the reeds and bushes found in wet areas. They are used by nomad women to collect dung, the basket tied to their backs, the dung flung into it with a backward gesture of the arm. It is an excruciating task that the women performed in the early hours of dawn, walking the areas where the animals had left their droppings, collecting, then dumping the dung into piles. Later, they would shape the dung into patties and leave them to dry, to be used as fuel.
When I looked at those baskets, I thought of all that, and not much else. It took Isabelle Graz to spot them, admire their vernacular beauty and assign them new uses. They started as trash cans scattered in Norden Camp, but didn’t manage to survive the weather. They then moved indoors and held Norlha scarves in the store, and are also carried by the Norlha cleaning team to transport laundry and supplies for the rooms. Yidam and Dechen then ordered smaller versions for other storage uses.
People often confuse yak hair with yak wool. The first has the consistency of horsehair and is most present in the tail or in the characteristic long hairs that skirt the animal’s abdomen. The wool is the fine down that lies beneath the hair, all over the young yak’s body and in specific areas on the adult. It molts in late spring and is what Norden’s sister company, Norlha, uses for making its shawls, blankets and felts.
Yak hair is a tradition of its own, and was primarily used for making the nomad’s characteristic dark brown tents, ropes, monastery awnings and door curtains. It is hand woven in narrow strips from a back strap loom, into a very dense, heavy, rough and long lasting fabric.
Norden’s founder and owner, Yidam Kyap, when designing the Norden tents, modified the original nomad tent design to a more spacious, high ceiling form, adding canvas awnings and windows to the yak hair panels.
by Kim Yeshi
The visit of a holy being into one’s home is considered the blessing of a lifetime. Norden’s landlord received this blessing on May 2nd, when the young incarnate of the celebrated Gonthang Rinpoche from Labrang Monastery visited his home on his way to Norden Camp.
Sankhok nomads have only recently begun to live in houses. Twenty five years ago, the area was divided into large plots of several hectares which were fenced and allocated to the local nomads. Most families built amakeshift house on these plots and live there from January to June, the rest of the time spent in the higher grazing areas. In summer the houses are left empty, in winter they serve as shelter, only a little better than a tent.
The lama came around noon, two large vehicles, from where he and his entourage poured out. While they were offered a generous meal in the two tiny rooms that made up the house, the family busily organized the blessing ceremony for the fifty so relatives and friends who had gathered. A dzomo and a horse, attired in brocade waited impatiently to be offered in the yard. I had seen both of them wandering in the camp several years in a row and the dzomo had a colorful cloth around her neck, identifying her as having had her life extended for some years.
In front of the house, several men were actively trying to upgrade a plastic chair into a throne of sorts from where the lama would dispense the blessing. I knew I was not to take photographs unless asked to do so. Yidam had brought me there, knowing I would love to see this and I waited patiently until I was asked to come into the room and take a formal picture. I decided to restrain myself from taking the blessing scene out of respect, though I did get the crowd.
The animals were offered on the Lama’s way out, and he happily continued to the camp. The next day, I spotted the horse and dzomo wandering in the camp, the horse gallivanting across the center with remnants of his brocade ornament.
By Kim Yeshi
Having lived and worked in Tibetan areas for several years Norden’s Chef Andrew Notte is very familiar with the staples of the plateau diet and with knowledge and creativity, transforms them into a unique form of fusion cuisine, that is both delicious and healthy.
Norden’s menus are based on the three ingredients unique to Tibetan cooking:
--Tsampa: barley flour, the staple of the high plateau
--Yak: the fundamental source of meat and dairy products
--Joma: the high protein root found throughout the grasslands
Tsampa, or barley flour, illustrated here, is the staple of Tibet. The only cereal that grows at a high altitude it is used as a companion to meat and vegetables and as a primary source of nutrition when nomads are on the move. Norden uses it to make crepes, breads, noodle soups and desserts.
Norden’s staff is local and young. Some have had schooling, others not. Though it is all new to them, they are motivated, eager to learn and value their job.. Meet Norden’s cleaning team. They learned to scrub and tidy from our Swiss friend Isabelle Graz, and are attentive to the expectations of our customers.
Norden gives jobs to those best suited for them. The cleaning team are all high school graduates, and though they are of nomad background, they have lived in houses and have a sense of tidiness. Nomads made good waiters and cooks, and the older generation guard the grounds and share their knowledge of the area, guiding visitors to beautiful spots.
It stands in a secluded area by the river, close to the Monastery. We found the door locked and Yidam went to find the man who ran the small operation; grinding barley into tsampa flour from a water mill in the traditional way. The mill, still in its original construction, had belonged to Jamyang Shepa, the head lama of Labrang and for several incarnations, had provided his household and others with freshly ground tsampa. The man in charge had taken up the business four years earlier and said that his main customers were monks, mostly from Labrang monastery. We watched him stand over the river and open the latch, and saw the water rush in, activating the horizontal wheel that stood below the grinding stones.
We ordered our tsampa, for Norden Camp and for ourselves, attentive as he poured the barley seeds into the grinder, the smell of freshly ground tsampa filling the small, dark room and a thin layer of white powder escaping from the stones, the rest into the round wooden tray below. He packed it into sacks labeled as pig feed, apologizing for the lack of packaging. This tsampa will be used at Norden not only as a traditional staple, but also by Norden’s Chef for his innovative recipes on local products called “Tsampa Story”
Norden camp is located on a nomad's grazing area where yak and sheep wander between February and June. When we open each Spring, the animals are there, wandering freeling through the property and beyond. Yaks are shy and peaceful creatures, and their young, that meander in play groups are especially cute.